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Writers in Prisons Recount Oppression

Statement from WiPC's Biennial Conference

SOURCE: Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), International PEN, London

Statement from the 5th Biennial Conference of the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN Barcelona, 21 May 2004

"Many of us have been asking, is this what we went to jail for? What has all our struggle come to? A mere clearing of the path for another set of murderers and looters? Right now, a cloud of despair hangs over us."

Nigerian journalist Kunle Ajibade expressed what is increasingly the mood of our times when he addressed the Barcelona meeting of the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN in Barcelona, Spain.

Delegates attending the conference recognised that these are dark days for the right to freedom of expression, but reaffirmed their belief that the role of the writer is more important than ever. That is why so many of us came together to exchange ideas and experiences.

WIPC not only campaigns for writers while they are in prison but provides a forum where they can share their experiences with members and learn from each other.

Thanks to the generosity of the Catalan PEN Centre and three levels of government, this has been the largest gathering ever of delegates from Writers in Prison Committees around the world, including writers from new WiPCs in Algeria, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Paraguay, Uganda and Sierra Leone.

During this conference, writers, journalists and publishers recounted the repression they experienced simply for expressing themselves. Among them were:

- Kunle Ajibade, jailed for life in Nigeria by the dictator Sani Abacha in 1995 and released in July 1998

- Eritrean journalist Aaron Berhane, who, under threat of death, escaped across the border to Sudan and who now lives in exile in Canada

- Cheikh Kone, who fled the Ivory Coast and ended up in Australia where he was detained in a refugee camp. He was refused a visa to be with us. Furthermore, the Australian government has invoiced him for A$89,000 for the cost of his detention.

We also heard the testimony of Basque journalist Martxelo Otamendi, who reported that he was tortured for five days in a Madrid jail and that his newspaper Egunkaria was closed down on allegations of supporting terrorism.

These cases are a vivid reminder of the range of problems that writers are now facing in all parts of the world, even those living in Western democracies.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, more than 50 countries have introduced new legislation and amended existing laws with the stated purpose of confronting the threat of terrorism.

Countries like Bangladesh, the United States of America, Britain, Kenya, China, Morocco and Australia have adopted new measures to control the flow of information and restrict movement of persons from certain parts of the world.

The Writers in Prison Committee recognises the genuine threat that acts of terror pose to peace and security in the world. We believe, however, that governments must take a balanced view and recognise the right to free expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We also urge governments to respect the right of persons to oppose their policies and laws by peaceful means, and to acknowledge that dissent is fundamental to the democratic process.

Members of the WiPC are also concerned about restrictions and state sabotage of internet activity in countries such as China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran and Tunisia. We appeal to governments in these countries to allow their citizens to communicate freely with each other and the outside world.

We condemn the use of criminal libel laws to imprison writers, prevent publication and which encourage self-censorship in many countries.

We deplore the killing and persecution of local and foreign journalists in the Middle East and other areas of conflict. We appeal to the governments in the region to respect the right to free expression and the right of the media to carry out its work.

Finally, the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN is deeply concerned about the proliferation of detention camps for immigrants and refugees around the world and the limits on freedom of expression and associated rights for the detainees.

As Salman Rushdie said in his keynote address, "Books survive, writers do not." In times like these, when freedom of expression is threatened in so many countries and regions of the world, governments often depend on the fact that their citizens are not able to share their experiences across borders.

The hospitality Catalan PEN extended to the Writers in Prison Committee Conference created a climate of good will and creative exchange, and offered proof that it is possible for people from all continents and cultures to share their concerns and work collectively to protect the right of all to express themselves.

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